On panpsychism, an exchange

I recently ended a fascinating discussion with philosopher Philip Goff, on the topic of the science and philosophy of panpsychism. (You can find the 8 letters we exchanged here.) Panpsychism is the notion that consciousness, somehow, is elemental in the universe, i.e., it is a basic property of matter.

As Goff readily admitted, there is no, and there cannot be any, empirical evidence in support of his theory. Indeed, if there were, we would already know that the theory is false, as explained by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder here.

You would think that would be the end of the discussion, but Goff subscribes to what I suggest is an outmoded approach to metaphysics, believing that simply producing logically coherent accounts of things one actually advances knowledge and understanding.

My opinion is that that way of doing metaphysics died with Descartes (not coincidentally, that’s also when modern science got started — Descartes was a contemporary of Galileo). A far better way to conceive of the whole project of metaphysics nowadays is as being in the business of making unified sense of the highly fractured picture of the world emerging from the special sciences, since scientists themselves are simply, by necessity, too close to their subject matter to be able to afford a bird’s eye view of things (see here for an example).

In the end, my sense is that what Goff and others (for instance, most famously, David Chalmers) are doing got the best response from David Hume back in the 18th century:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1777)

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Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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